'Get On Up'
James Brown’s insane and turmultuous life is just too grand and bizarre for a conventional bio-pic. Thankfully, the folks behind ‘Get On Up’ don’t even try to fit that square peg into a round hole, delivering a non-linear and deeply odd movie that suits the man and his music. Toss in a simply astounding central performance and you’ve got a rare bio-pic worth seeing beyond the stunt casting and/or nostalgia.
‘Get On Up’ opens in such a strange, hilarious and unconventional manner that it’s damn near impossible not to fall for it instantly. Director Tate Taylor (‘The Help’) introduces audiences to James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) through the events leading up to Brown’s 1988 arrest. We see him march into his strip mall office and become so enraged when he sees that a neighboring business has used his toilet that he bursts in wearing a track suit and carrying a shotgun to rant about how they violated the sanctity of his commode. From there, we cut to a bizarre moment at the height of Brown’s career when he flew to Vietnam to perform for the troops and was almost blown up. After that, we catch a glimpse of Brown’s almost indescribably painful childhood. Brown directly addresses the audience throughout these three disconnected, yet wonderfully entertaining sequences. Immediately, Taylor sets the tone for his colorful, funny, tragic and unconventional bio.
The strong script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who also wrote this summer’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the deeply underrated ‘Birthday Girl’) says patooey to the standard bio-pic structure, favoring an almost jazz-like riff on Brown’s life that meanders through a variety of important events and packs in as much music as possible in an attempt to give an impression of James Brown rather than merely settling on a greatest hits. We see Brown’s abusive and neglectful childhood split between two pained and unprepared parents, and a long stretch at a brothel. We seem him transform a gospel group into the iconic James Brown orchestra. We see him develop into a singular artist and brilliant businessman on his own terms. We see his crack-fueled low and his multi-million dollar high. We hear the music and most importantly we see how few people he let into his life and how he harshly rejected them all in favor of becoming the one-man monster that was James Brown. This is not a romanticized movie, nor is it a harshly condemning one. It’s a film by people genuinely fascinated by Brown who wanted to give unfamiliar viewers a glimpse into what made him such an important artist as well as a tragically flawed man.
Perhaps best of all, Taylor and his screenwriters pull it off in a manner as playful and musical as one would hope from a movie honoring the Godfather of Soul. Taylor has crafted a big, weird, wonderful and downright goofy movie. It’s the type of film that won’t just meticulously recreate a ludicrous bad sweater performance that Brown delivered on a cheesy 1960s Christmas TV special, but one that will pause in the middle for Brown to realize how far off his path he’s strayed before cutting directly to one of his most outrageously personal performances. Even if you know Brown’s life, it’s a hard movie to pin down and predict because it could jump to any era for any purpose at any moment.
Quite often, Taylor pushes the style too far, but that’s just a result of risky filmmaking that has to fall on its face at times to hit its magical heights. Large portions of Brown’s life are glossed over or ignored to fit in more musical performances and focus on the central theme of his inability to forge long-lasting and meaningful relationships with anyone but himself. However, it’s hard to complain too much about that since it would have been damn near impossible to make a James Brown movie that covered every facet of the man. At least this one comes close.
The performances are excellent throughout, with some standout roles for the likes of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Aykroyd (of all people) and Brandon Smith (who is so good in his few scenes as Little Richard that he deserves a spin-off bio immediately). However, there’s no point in spending much time discussing them since they all pale in comparison to Chadwick Boseman’s downright astonishing transformation into James Brown. Last year, Boseman played Jackie Robinson and did a nice job of capturing that man’s quiet dignity, but he practically becomes possessed by James Brown here. The iconic voice is handled perfectly, the dance moves are exquisitely recreated, and best of all it never feels like an impression. It’s a fully realized character and a performance so funny and heartbreaking that if Boseman doesn’t win an Oscar for it (and he probably should), it’ll at least put him on a track to get one very soon.
The film never could have worked without Boseman. He’s so consistently transcendent that he smoothes over any bum notes in the running time with the sheer conviction of his acting. Thankfully, the movie around him is big, bold and fun enough to be worthy of his work. Oscar bait bio-pics might be the bane of the fall movie season, but ‘Get On Up’ gives the genre a good name. It’s no masterpiece, yet when all of the pieces fall into place and the movie soars, it sure can feel like one.